There is a great deal we do as rabbinical students to understand and prepare for Shabbat. We study why we light two candles on Shabbat and what prayers to recite and songs to sing. We contemplate what it means for us to really rest for one day of the week. At the root of Shabbat, though, is community. In 2020, we have had to shift many aspects of our lives, including how we approach community. Community no longer involves passing by familiar faces in a hallway or being the last one chatting in the social hall. In the new world of social distancing, community has had to go virtual.
This summer, I served as The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati Fellow at the Mayerson JCC. When mass shutdowns began in March due to COVID-19, we immediately opened discussions of what the fellowship would look like, and how flexibility and creativity would now be a key requirement for any programming. The daily seniors’ lunch was one of the main programs the Rabbi and fellow at the JCC were involved with. This event obviously could no longer take place in person, especially as seniors are among the most vulnerable in our population. A daily lunch became a weekly Zoom call, a schmooze became Shabbat blessings, and a large crowd dwindled to fewer than ten regulars. While so much has had to shift this year, community can still be felt deeply in something as simple as a weekly video call.
We rooted the calls in Judaism with Shabbat blessings, regardless of the fact that it was the middle of the day, and we added a few minutes of Torah from parashat hashavua. While there was Jewish content, we spent more of our time catching up and checking in with each other. While our topics sometimes seemed mundane—who went for a walk this week, what everyone was baking, which friends were in the hospital or recovering—these are the foundations of community. We shared laughs, words of healing, and even words of Torah. Our short discussions led to ideas for further study, and Coffee Talks, monthly adult education sessions, were sometimes rooted in the topics that came up during our Friday calls.
We concluded each gathering with blessings and often one member would give us a peek at her fresh-out-of-the-oven challah. Regardless of everyone’s practice, denomination, or upbringing, we came together. It was a joy to see familiar faces and, slowly, become a virtual community throughout the summer.
Rabbinical school teaches me what Shabbat is and all of the ways to practice and observe it. This summer at the Mayerson JCC, I was reminded that Shabbat is not merely a time but a mindset. Shabbat is not necessarily about a strict practice, but about the rituals we keep and that keep us together. This year has been challenging, but staying connected is keeping everyone whole. The mindset of Shabbat is what keeps Jewish community alive and connected, virtually or in-person.
Rebecca Benoff is a third-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. This summer, she served as the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati Education Fellow at the Mayerson JCC in Cincinnati.